ARA 2016 Conference – an International Perspective

In the first of two posts about the ARA 2016 conference, American archivist Dana Hamlin talks about her experience of the conference.

At the end of August, I made the long journey from Boston, Massachusetts to Wembley to attend the ARA 2016 conference. Luckily I had a day between landing at Gatwick and the start of the conference, so my brain had a chance to recover from sleepless overnight flight before needing to be fully on and ready to absorb all the conference had to offer.

My husband and I, both football fans, were excited to be met with this view upon exiting Wembley Park Station!

The conference began bright and early on Day One with a welcome address by ARA Chair Geoff Pick. He called our attention to the conference theme – “Global Futures” – and talked about how the ARA Conference has grown into an international event. He also pointed out how so much change has affected what we do, how we do it, and how we think as archives and records professionals, and how we must strive to shape the future, rather than merely be changed by it.

Next was the first of three keynote talks – “Archives, Race, Class and Rage,” presented by Colin Prescod, the Chair of the Institute of Race Relations. In a powerful speech, he challenged those in the audience to engage with archives with agency, to contest the grand historical narrative that excludes and represses, and to rage against othering and the whitewashing of the record. Referring to a recent article in the Guardian about the Mau Mau rebellion, he called on archivists to deliberately seek records that would amplify the voices of those who have been traditionally marginalized in archives – as he put it, the lions wresting their history back from the hunters.

Colin Prescod delivering his keynote on Day One.

After the keynote and a coffee break, we delegates divided ourselves up to attend presentations in one of three different threads – Archives and Records, Conservation, or Digital Preservation. Though each offered fascinating topics and I often felt torn over which to attend, I opted for the Archives and Records thread for most of the three days, though I did stray a few times into the digital side of things.

(Here is where my recollections fail me a bit; after the welcome and first keynote, where I was amped and focused and furiously scribbling notes, for the rest of the conference I seemed to get caught in a limbo between writing down and tweeting my notes and thoughts, and as a result they’re not as complete. So the rest of the conference will have to be described in bits and highlights!)

The first session I attended continued both the global theme of the conference and the call to seek marginalized voices. The three talks dealt with the ideas of boundaries and borders, as well as international collaboration, dismantling various barriers to access, and the active role archives can play in justice movements. After lunch, the topic switched to archival education and training. I found it fascinating to hear about the Transforming Archives trainee program and the efforts that are being made to diversify the field, something which is also a work n progress in the US.

Day One ended with a drinks reception at the Guildhall Art Gallery, a location I had only just recently heard of in the news as the site of the Queen’s 90th birthday reception – fancy indeed! Fewer delegates were there than I expected – rumor had it the reception was competing with the airing of the first episode of this season’s Great British Bake Off – but it was great to hear from the Sheriff of the City of London, admire some art, and explore Guildhall from its Great Hall to its crypts to its Roman ruins.

The medieval Great Hall inside Guildhall

My notes pick up the next day at the after-lunch tutorials. Imagine my horror, as an introvert feeling a bit of imposter syndrome due to my first-time status and foreignness, when the first tutorial leader announced that we’d be doing group work with some case studies. I didn’t sign up for that! I shouldn’t have worried, however, as I was sat with a group of kind, intelligent and chatty archivists. We had a great, thought-provoking discussion about archivists’ roles as gatekeepers and where we draw the line when it comes to access to potentially illegal content. (That’s all I’m at liberty to say, as we all promised to work within the proverbial Archival “Cone of Silence” (American expression?). I can promise, however, that it was interesting!)

I attended two of the Digital sessions over three days, both about digitization projects. I’m currently in the midst of a digitization project at work, with more looming on the horizon, and found it immensely helpful to hear the experiences of colleagues who are further along in the process.

I could keep happily typing away about the other sessions I attended, but in the interest of space I’ll sum up with this – I learned so much, and came away inspired by others in the field. My notebook is filled with thoughts and ideas to bring back to my own archive, and I hope lots of discussion will come from it!

In addition to getting the cogs turning rapidly in my brain, the conference proved more networking-friendly than I expected. This was my first ARA conference; I usually attend the annual Society of American Archivists (SAA) conference, which is quite large and so can sometimes be a little cliquey, and can often feel overwhelming in terms of chatting with other delegates. I was expecting the same from ARA, but instead found myself engaged in conversations throughout. Maybe others saw my green name badge (signifying that I was a first-timer) and were being especially welcoming, or noticed my non-UK or Ireland workplace and were curious to talk, or maybe archivists are just more outgoing on this side of “the pond.” Whatever the reason, the variety of people I was able to meet and the conversations I had were definitely a highlight of the conference. That, and the ice cream station!

Ice cream station! We don’t have 99’s in the US, so this was a treat.

 To see some summaries of conference sessions, visit the ARA Conference page here.

To see a Storify (or two) of tweets that used the conference hashtag (#ara2016), visit here and here.





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